At a certain point in “Captain America: Civil War,” a gaudily clad superhero — I forget which one — says to another gaudily clad superhero, “This doesn’t have to end in a fight.”
“It always ends in a fight” is the response.
There you have the entire plot and pleasure of the latest Marvel whamalama, a fantasy-action juggernaut that worries mightily about the uses and abuses of (super)power only to pile on the battling brand-names. It’s a blockbuster behemoth that’s light on its feet, a movie that worries about collateral damage, team loyalty, and personal and international responsibilities — and then corrals every Spandexed or armor-clad warrior in Stan Lee’s phonebook for a mid-movie dust-up that’s absurd comic-book fun.
This comes as a surprise, for the “Captain America” movies have always been the most self-serious of Marvel’s current franchise extensions (i.e., what we used to call “movies”). The last installment, 2013’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” dealt with drone warfare, among other real-world concerns. The new “Captain America: Civil War” sounds like it might be tackling our broken political system.
No such luck. The “civil war” of the title refers to the divided factions of caped crusaders, one wing of which wants to sign a UN-backed “Sokovia Accords” that will put all superheroes under international oversight. The other faction wants none of it, in part because there are still bad guys out there with murky, nasty plans. “If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose,” insists Captain America (Chris Evans). “If we don’t do it now, we’ll have it done for us later,” says Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).
If you’re going to have a high school debate, I guess these are the guys you want heading up the teams. (Note: Spoilers by necessity follow, so if you’re the sort who reads reviews without wanting to know what’s actually in the movie, the exit’s that way.) Having almost destroyed the planet by accident in last year’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Stark has a case of the guilty yips, and he wants his fellow “enhanced individuals” to stand down on the orders of the US Secretary of State. (The latter is played by a trim, dynamic William Hurt with a late-period Paul Newman vibe.)
Captain America, true to his name, doesn’t like to be told what he can and can’t do. He realizes his old Brooklyn pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is the brainwashed supervillain known as the Winter Soldier but believes the latter has been framed for the new movie’s terrorist acts and that some shadowy Other is pulling the levers of evildoer-y. That’s all you really need to know about the plot: two guys and their friends having an interoffice spat.
So why is “Captain America: Civil War” guilt-free popcorn even for a non-fanatic? Because the filmmakers — returning co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely — understand that they’ve built up a vast ensemble of character types, all of them played by better-than-average actors, and that they can mix and match the drama, comedy, or action as they see fit.
In addition to Cap, Stark, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) from the “Avengers” cadre, we have Iron Man’s friend “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Captain America’s fellow veteran Falcon (Anthony Mackie). From the last “Avengers” movie, we have the touchingly emo Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the maroon super-guru Vision (Paul Bettany), who spends the first half of “Civil War” as the movie’s unofficial C-3PO before getting to be interesting. Thor and the Hulk sit this one out; maybe they’re off having a beer.
But wait, there’s more! Chadwick Boseman essays Prince T’Challa of Wakanda, who in a vengeful pique puts on a sleek ebony suit to become Black Panther. (What with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s revamp of the comic book, it’s been a very good year for this character.) Furthermore, the warring factions call on Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and a young Spider-Man (Tom Holland) for respective back-up.
First, every movie should have Paul Rudd in it, especially the ones in danger of taking themselves too seriously. His superpower is blue-eyed snark. Second, the Spider-Man sequences, maybe 20 minutes in total, are so superior to the wretched recent reboots with Andrew Garfield that you’re actually glad the property is back in Marvel/Disney’s corporate hands.
Third, Marisa Tomei plays Aunt May. Or, as a bedazzled Stark describes her to Peter Parker, “your unusually attractive aunt.”
The movie grounds these cartoons with the right amount of psychology and lets the cast impart top-spin to their lines; you happily go along for the ride. And when “Captain America: Civil War” lets all these characters just whale on each other in an extended sequence two-thirds of the way in, it doesn’t bring the movie to a screeching halt (as in “Age of Ultron”) or turn into a headachy bore (as in the recent “Batman v Superman: Sorry We Asked”). It’s delirious multiplex pop art, stopping just short of the animated “pows!” of the old “Batman” TV series.
Of course, the movie still has 40 minutes to go, and the other action sequences feature a stutter-start camera/editing technique that quickly turns annoying. But at least “Captain America: Civil War” forgoes the cliched doomsday-clock finale, throws in a red herring (or five), and provides its master villain with a human motivation instead of a galactic one.
Too many superhero movies pull their muscles straining to convince us the world’s about to end; the title alone of the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse” is enough to make you flinch. This one just allows us to inhabit its make-believe world for two hours plus, and then sends us back to reality amused, entertained, and only slightly exhausted. It’s nonsense that knows its name.
★ ★ ★
Captain America: Civil War
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 146 minutes. PG-13 (extended sequences of violence, action, and mayhem).
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.